THE SCARIEST THING I'VE EVER DONE
by Carla E. Anderton
A few days ago, my friend and mentor Scott A. Johnson guest blogged here in The Madhouse about scary stories and why he tells them. Scott’s post was food for thought, as it led me to consider my own definition of what “scary” is and, more specifically, to think of the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
Full disclosure: I write historical horror, but I’m terribly squeamish. While I can study the postmortem photos of Jack the Ripper’s victims from every angle with an almost chilling detachment, at heart I’m still afraid of the dark. I have near paralyzing phobias when it comes to heights, spiders and wide open spaces. Yeah, I know, I’m a fruitcake, and I’m doubtless setting the bar low in terms of what I’ve found to be the most frightening experience of my life. But, nevertheless, shall we?
There’s a saying I’ll paraphrase here that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. So, it stands to reason that while most people would prefer to avoid both, the doing of it is easier said than enacted. Having said that, the scariest thing I’ve ever done wasn’t moving 800 miles away from everything I knew at the age of 22, taking a near fatal fall down the stairs at the age of 26, or even ending my marriage at the age of 32, when I was fairly certain doing so was going to land me in a watery grave in a Carolina swamp, food for alligators. No, the scariest thing I’ve ever done is “start” and “operate” a non-profit arts center, Jozart Center for the Arts in California, Pennsylvania. (www.jozart.com)
It’s important to place this action in the right context. You see, it’s like June Carter Cash sang first – a phrase which Trent Reznor later co-opted – “I used to be somebody.” I went to the right places, rubbed elbows with others who were also “somebody”. I was a political animal, and every move I made was meticulously calculated with the thought “what will other people think of me/this” uppermost in mind. And then one day I rebelled against this line of thinking, started doing what I wanted to do exactly when I wanted to do it, and while the result was liberating, it’s like that dolt who used to occupy the White House often trumpeted: “Freedom isn’t free.” The price I paid for freedom was fairly staggering and I basically lost the bulk of my life’s work and a career I’d spent better than a decade building. It was worth it, but it was still a serious blow to my self esteem.
So, again in the interest of being genuine, at the time the opportunity to “take over” the arts center presented itself, I was feeling pretty low. I had my writing, of course, and my personal life had never been better, but professionally I felt like I’d failed and I’ve never been a graceful loser. I wanted to lay low, lick my wounds and hope I had the wherewithal to at the very least succeed at the business of graduate school. The last thing I wanted to do was jump back into a political arena where I’d be in the hot seat. I wanted to be invisible, not giving interviews to reporters, the very reporters I just KNEW had witnessed my earlier fall from grace.
Still, the arts center – formerly called a “studio” – was in immediate and very real danger of closing its doors forever. And, of the last decade I so lamented, I’d spent my happiest moments there. I couldn’t stand idly by and let the place cease to exist, not if it was in my power to prevent that from happening. Plus, more importantly, I saw my little boy – he was not six feet tall in those days – CRY because he thought he’d never get to attend another Open Mic, never get to perform again on the first stage he ever stepped on. (There’s been a lot of stages in my son’s life, but I think the one closest to his heart is the one at Jozart.) So, it wasn’t really a matter of choosing to be involved in the “take over” of Jozart. It was more that it chose me.
The initial process of convincing others it could be done and rallying them to the cause was easy, as was somehow getting myself unanimously elected President of the “new” center’s board of directors. (Nobody else wanted the job, trust me.) The paperwork necessary to incorporate and to apply to the IRS for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status was tedious, complex and involved MATH – which has never been my strong suit – but not all that daunting in itself. Figuring out how I was going to balance my responsibilities was not as easy as taking them on, but that wasn’t the aspect of the “take over” I found so terrifying.
No, the true terror came when they – the former owners – handed me a key to the place, and I was confronted with the sudden reality that I was in charge, that the buck now stopped with me. I knew from the onset I’d just jumped feet first back into a world I’d turned my back on barely a year earlier, a world where you have to be mindful of every syllable you utter for fear you’ll be misquoted or misunderstand and your own words will came back to haunt you. That much was unsettling enough, but on top of that, I was now in charge of a host of issues that hadn’t occurred to me when I’d taken on the job, ranging from “will we be able to afford the rent this month?” to “did we remember to pay the gas bill?” The concerts and gallery openings I’d attended as a spectator for nearly a decade now were my responsibility to plan, promote and oversee, and the workshops I’d participated in during the same time were now my efforts to coordinate.
Don’t get me wrong. I had help and still do, in fact I’m incredibly lucky to have at my disposal several hard working, dedicated fellow board members and volunteers, all of whom love every dusty square foot of Jozart as much as I do. Still, they expressed confidence in me when they chose me to lead them, and while providing them with competent leadership is a duty I take very seriously, sometimes it scares the hell out of me to realize so many people are relying on me. What happens if they discover I’m a fraud, that I’m no more capable of succeeding at this venture than I am at scaling Mount Everest? (The latter being an impossibility as one of my biggest fears is that of heights.)
Thus far, we’ve been fortunate enough to keep the center’s doors open for close to 17 months longer than originally anticipated. We’re slowly but surely improving the appearance of the facility, and with every event or workshop we increase public awareness of what we’re trying to do and that is to provide the Mon Valley region of Pennsylvania with a top notch location to enjoy and explore the arts. It took over a year, but we finally got the IRS to agree to issue our “non profit status letter”, the official correspondence that will enable us to go after grants and seek out new donors.
Is it still as frightening, 17 months later? You bet it is, because every day brings a new challenge to confront, another goal to meet and exceed, and while the great unknown is no longer “can we do it”, it is nonetheless scary sometimes to imagine just how exactly we will do it. And that’s the stuff of occasional nightmares, or at least of mine…
**Jozart is open to ALL artists including writers
Carla E. Anderton holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from California University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Ms. Anderton has published poetry, essays, short fiction and plays, as well as completed a historical horror novel, The Heart Absent. For nearly five years, Ms. Anderton served as Editor-in-Chief of a regional monthly newsmagazine, California Focus. Currently, Ms. Anderton serves as the President of the Board of Directors at Jozart Center for the Arts in California, PA, where she lives with her son, two cats and a talkative computer repairman.